Notes from Underground

For any fifth millennium readers, here are some incidents and observations from London’s Underground:

  • Northern Line, East Finchley station, heading South, a weekend day in summer 2017, about 17.00: Two teenage boys, about 14 or so years old, ride skateboards down the footpath on the High Street to the Station, riding around pedestrians and bantering as they go.  They enter the station and join the first train south, boisterously and loudly sitting across from each other and still engaging in banter.  They are not hurting anyone, but some of the older passengers seem offended or scared.  Into the same carriage a young woman with a baby in a pram also enters and she sits on a fold-down seat in the middle of the carriage, with the pram beside her.  She forgets to lock the wheels of the pram.  So, as the train starts off, the pram rolls backwards, towards the two boys. Immediately, both boys leap up to grab it from their seats on opposite sides of the aisle.  As they return it to the woman, the look in her eyes is one of great relief.
  • Northern Line, Bank branch, heading north, Saturday 2016-04-09, 21.35: A dozen drunk young women board the train at Old Street, all but one dressed as elderly women, with wigs, granny glasses, handbags, etc.  One is dressed in pyjamas and a dressing gown – presumably she is the bride-to-be.  Several carry large plastic penises.  They are loud and boisterous, but good-natured.  The gentleman sitting opposite, a dapper man in his 60s with a thin moustache, dressed in a suit and tie, with a flower in his lapel and a silk handkerchief in his top pocket, awakes from his slumber. It turns out that he too is drunk, and, in a loud Irish accent, he engages the women. Banter is exchanged, and there are smiles and laughter the length of the carriage. The women detrain at Kings Cross, the Irish gent following them.  Was that his planned stop, one wonders?  What does it say about our culture that a young person seeking to act trangressively dresses as a very elderly person?
  • Northern line, London Bridge station, northbound platform, a Friday evening in February 2014, around 23.30: the platform is empty apart from a group of 8 men in suits and ties, in their early 20s, huddled in a close circle with arms around one another. They are taking turns to ingest something, each throwing his head back as he does.
  • Northern line, Charing Cross branch, heading south, a station between Euston and Embankment, a cold winter’s morning in winter 2012-2013, all the seats in the carriage taken, but the aisle free: a passenger stands up to detrain as the train stops. Apparently his gloves had been sitting in his lap and these are thrown off in different directions as he stands up. He does not see this and moves to leave. Both gloves are caught superbly by other passengers seated opposite and on different sides of him, and one of these passengers shouts at him. He turns and both gloves are thrown back to him.  He catches both and shouts his thanks. The scene looked choreographed and rehearsed, so perfect are the four arcs of the flying gloves and the catches.

Ends and Means

I have just read the memoir of Michael Hayden, USAF General and former head of both NSA and CIA. The book is interesting and mostly well-written.  It appears, as much as such a memoir could be, honest and truthful.
The torture of detainees undertaken by CIA personnel took place before Hayden was Director, so he could absolve himself of it completely.  But, as he did while Director and subsequently, he defends strongly and bravely his CIA staff, who acted under what they believed were legal orders and within what they believed to be constitutional limits.  This defence is admirable.
How one could imagine that torture would be legal under a constitution which prohibits cruel or unusual punishments remains one of the great mysteries of our age.  Hayden, however, also defends the torture itself.  He does so on grounds of effectiveness, grounds which are demonstrably, and which have repeatedly been demonstrated to be, spurious.  It is no good Hayden, or any other official paid by the public purse, saying “trust me, I know”.  We live in a democracy, and we need, we citizens ourselves, to see the evidence.  It has not ever been provided, at least not definitively and uncontestably.
Such a defence is essentially that the end justifies the means.  As a Roman Catholic, Hayden should appreciate the counter-argument that rebuts this defence: that certain means may vitiate, or irredeemably taint, the ends.   So, even if using torture were to be more effective than not using it, we still should not use it.   We should not because torture is contrary to our values as a humane, civilized, society, respectful of  human dignity, and because using it undermines any claims we may have to moral superiority over our terrorist enemy.
Like players cheating in sports, support for torture shows what sort of person you are, and what values you consider important. Hayden seems like an intelligent, thoughtful, and humane person, so it is a great pity that he, and others in the Bush 43 administration, came to view torture as acceptable. Not everyone in CIA thought so, which was, indeed, how we citizens came to learn about the secret detention camps and the torture in the first place.
Reference:
Michael V Hayden [2016]: Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror.   New York: Penguin Press.